Observations: Kentucky 86, Auburn 54
The Tigers "got beat in every facet of the game" and "weren't competitive" in Rupp Arena. Now their path to the Big Dance is even tougher.
HC Bruce Pearl (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
LEXINGTON, Ky. — With a little more than five minutes left in the first half Saturday, Jaylin Williams threw down a massive putback dunk to give Auburn a lead at Kentucky.
The slam, coming off a 3-point attempt from Zep Jasper, gave the Tigers a 7-0 run — one that started with a Williams triple. Auburn had successfully counterpunched against Kentucky, and it was back in the fight entering the final stretch of the first half.
For the first 15 minutes, it looked like things might be different for Auburn in Lexington, a place where it had only won twice in 49 tries. A Tigers team that has “scrapped and clawed” in tough road environments all season was seemingly up for the challenge.
“We were ready to play,” Bruce Pearl said. “You could tell early that we had a good game plan.
“And then, with about three or four minutes to go in the first half, things just unraveled a little bit.”
Kentucky finished the half on a 16-4 run, taking a double-digit lead into the halftime locker room. Allen Flanigan scored early in the second half to cut it back to single digits.
But the next time Auburn scored, it was already down by nearly 20. Another Kentucky run minutes later stretched the lead to nearly 30. And before Auburn’s bench capped the game with a 8-0 run, Kentucky had led by 40.
“Our guys — we just didn't stay together,” Pearl said.
On Saturday, Auburn was dominated in a way that it hadn’t been in a very long time, culminating in its biggest margin of defeat in seven years.
After Williams’ putback dunk, Kentucky outscored Auburn 62-29. (It was 62-21, almost a tripling-up, before that 8-0 run to end it.) And, after both teams started with 11 rebounds each, Kentucky got 30 of the remaining 42 boards.
Kentucky finished with 86 points. Previously, it hadn’t scored more than 85 points in any game except for the ones against Howard, South Carolina State, Florida A&M and a Louisville squad that it one of the worst power-conference teams in recent history.
Auburn finished with 54 points. The Tigers have had multiple lower scoring games this season, but this one finished with just four assists. That was the smallest amount Auburn has had in any game under Pearl, tying a 38-point loss to Tennessee in the 2016 SEC Tournament.
“You can't have one assist in the first half, and offensively, you've gotta try to work together to make each other better,” Pearl said. “And we just didn't. Of course, the same thing happened on the defensive end as well.
“Auburn was not competitive at all tonight.”
We’ve only got three Observations from Auburn’s 86-54 loss at Kentucky, but they’re all pretty big ones. Here they are, along with the Rotation Charts, Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
C Johni Broome (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
A huge difference in physicality = a huge difference on the scoreboard
After Auburn was out-rebounded by 10 in its narrow victory over 2-SEC win Ole Miss at home earlier this week, Pearl said that if the Tigers played like that in Rupp Arena, they would lose by 40.
Auburn was out-rebounded by 18 against Kentucky and lost by 32.
“I was off by eight points,” Pearl said. “I hate when I'm right. But the physicality — they were much more physical than we were and played that way on both ends of the floor.”
It all started with Kentucky star Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning National Player of the Year. Tshiebwe had a double-double nailed down by halftime and finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds. When he checked out of the game with 3:12 left, he had almost as many boards at the Tigers did as a team.
Auburn’s leading rebounder was Dylan Cardwell, who had five. Jaylin Williams had four. Johni Broome, who went back and forth with Tshiebwe early, had just one.
“You look at the rebounding numbers, we just got dominated on the boards,” Pearl said. “We got 13 defensive rebounds. And they got 12 offensive rebounds. The numbers are incredible. Tshiebwe and (Jacob) Toppin physically had their way with us.”
This Auburn team isn’t loaded with 5-star talent, and it doesn’t have a returning All-American like Kentucky. Its two best players from a recruiting ranking perspective, Yohan Traore and Chance Westry, weren’t able to stay in the rotation come the heart of SEC play.
Auburn brought back a good amount of experience from its conference title team and added a veteran two-way center in Broome. But it doesn’t match up very well against the likes of Kentucky from a talent and athleticism perspective.
To give just one example: Kentucky 5-star freshman point guard Cason Wallace, who finished with 19 points, nine assists and four steals, had nearly a half of a foot on Wendell Green Jr. in the point guard matchup.
In order to overcome those gaps, Auburn usually has to be the team that wins a lot of 50-50 balls and play sound team basketball for 40 minutes. It was on track to do that in the first 15 minutes. In the final 25, though, Kentucky physically beat down Auburn.
“They're literally bigger and stronger at every position,” Pearl said. “And their physicality — we were no match for it.”
And when the effort levels clearly dropped off from the Tigers in the second half, the game turned into a monster blowout.
“I thought it was going to be hard-nosed the whole game,” Wallace told reporters afterwards. “But once we went on a run in the second half, I saw they started to slow down and drop their heads.”
According to friend of the newsletter Henry Patton at Rivals, Kentucky scored a devastating 1.857 points per possession in transition Saturday. Auburn also had a hard time guarding the Wildcats’ lengthy perimeter game in the half-court, as Antonio Reeves went 4-7 from deep and Kentucky went 8-13 as a team.
“Transition hurt us throughout the last four minutes and then the entire second half,” Pearl said. “I thought one of the keys was their guards being able to get downhill. Their guards got downhill on us and drove past our guards.
“We couldn't stay in front of them. I thought that was the difference. ... Couldn't keep them in front. Couldn't guard them.”
SF Allen Flanigan (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)